A little more than an hour after the Timberwolves ended their season with Wednesday night’s resounding 144-109 victory over New Orleans at Target Center, they announced they will search for both a new head coach and new leader of their basketball operations.
Interim coach Sam Mitchell will not return. General Manager Milt Newton will continue to work his expanded duties until the team decides upon a new leader(s), who will decide on Newton’s fate. Wolves owner Glen Taylor has hired an executive search firm to identify top candidates exclusively from outside the organization for both jobs.
One accomplished head coach who also has authority in player-personnel decisions and front-office structure could fill both jobs. That’s the arrangement Stan Van Gundy has in Detroit and the late Flip Saunders had with the Wolves.
Or Taylor could hire a head of basketball operations who then would hire a coach.
Either way, the job will be perhaps the most attractive opening this spring in the NBA because of youngsters such as Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine as well as another high draft pick this summer.
In a statement, Taylor thanked Mitchell and Newton for their work replacing Saunders after the team’s coach and president of basketball operations took a medical leave of absence last September. Saunders died in October, five months after being diagnosed with cancer.
Saying the team’s future “never has been brighter,” Taylor also said, “It’s important that we find the best leaders to shape our talented team and help them realize their full potential. We owe it to our fans, our community and to our players to ensure our team has the best chance possible of winning an NBA title.”
Taylor told Mitchell during a 15-minute conversation Wednesday morning that he is searching for a new permanent coach. Before the game, Mitchell said he still believed he was a candidate and the best man for the job.
“I would be disappointed if it was something that was promised to me, but it wasn’t when he asked me to take over,” Mitchell said. “No guarantees or promises. We knew this day was going to come. He’s doing what he has to do as an owner and for the organization.”
Shortly after the game but before the team announced he had been let go, he said, “I’m sure you guys will see me around. I’ll be around until they tell me don’t come around no more.”
Yahoo Sports reported Wednesday the search will target three elite coaching candidates: former Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau, former Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks and current television analyst Jeff Van Gundy.
Others are expected to be included as well, including coaches employed by other NBA teams and perhaps a high-profile college coach or two.
Unaware of the day’s developments, several Wolves players seemed stunned when told before the game of the decisions. One joked he was afraid to go home for the summer because his locker might be cleaned out when he returns.
After the game, Mitchell addressed his players with words that Wiggins said didn’t sound like a goodbye.
“He just said he did his job,” the second-year forward said. “I think he did his job. He prepared us for any type of situation. He’s the reason why we were so professional. The biggest thing he taught me was how to be professional.”
Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, has hired international search firm Korn Ferry, which helped the Pistons to decide upon Stan Van Gundy and Toronto choose Masai Ujiri as GM.
The announcement enables Taylor to ask other owners permission to speak with coaches under contract at this week’s league meetings in New York. It also gives the Wolves a head start before other teams fire coaches and search for new ones now that the regular season is over.
Named interim coach three weeks before training camp opened, Mitchell coached the Wolves to a 29-53 record — 13 more victories than last season — in his second stint as an NBA head coach. They went 9-8 in their last 17 games and won at Golden State, Oklahoma City, Portland Memphis this past month.
“It was a difficult situation we were all thrust into,” Mitchell said before the game. “I appreciate the fact that [Taylor] entrusted me with this year. … The things we’re proud of, I’m proud of is this now is an attractive job. Everyone wondered at the start of the season where the Timberwolves would go, what kind of foundation do they have?
“I’m very pleased and comfortable with the job I’ve done. I did my job … I know I’ve done my job when people are saying this is one of the better jobs in the NBA now.”